Baldwin & Co. In NOLA is a cafe and bookstore with a mission

Parker Diakite

You can grab a cup of coffee or tea at one of New Orleans’ hundreds of cafes. But the proof is in the energy: there’s nowhere like Baldwin & Co.

Inspired by one of the greatest black authors and activists of all time, space is life changing. The change is happening beyond books and specialty drinks on the menu named after some of James Baldwin’s most important works. It also comes from listening to the conversations as the chairs fill with some of the city’s brightest minds: politicians, professors, entrepreneurs, students and committed residents.

“It is a building of excellence. You get a certain aura when you walk into Baldwin & Co.,” founder DJ Johnson told ESSENCE. “You feel like the best version of yourself because you feel like you’re in a school of enlightenment.”

And there are very few characters more illuminating than James Baldwin. For Johnson, Baldwin’s writing style and the way he articulated the rage of life as a black man in America is why he connected most with the author.

And while Baldwin’s lyrics may have been the inspiration for the cafe, the black women in Johnson’s life were its foundation. He credits his love for reading to his mother, who knew the value of books early on. She was a single mother working three jobs while raising seven children. Yet, in the middle of her work schedule, she found time to instill the importance of reading in her children.

“There is no greater influence on the planet than a black woman. The women in my life have always played a starring role in who I am,” he says, mentioning his mother, grandmother, aunts and late cousin, Loretta Harrison. His restaurant, Pralines from Loretta, is just around the corner from the shop. Harrison, who died February 16, 2022, was the first African-American woman to successfully own and operate a praline business in New Orleans.

“Loretta has always been a huge inspiration to me,” he says. “She had a relentless work ethic to make this company what it is today, and she did it out of love.”

Baldwin & Co. seeks to have a similar lasting legacy in a time of increased gentrification in the city. Located in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans, it is a vibrant community where land was first sold to black women.

“Originally, when the Comte de Marigny subdivided the Marigny district, he sold land to free women of color,” says Mikhala W. Iversen, founder of All tours of Bout Dat.

“When the Americans bought the territory of Louisiana in 1803, they tried to get their hands on the Marigny subdivision. But the Comte de Marigny’s son did not like the Americans. He thought they were rich with no dignity because they were human traffickers [who] sold crops from forced labor camps on plantations and through the slave trade,” she says. “He would rather sell to free women of color than to white, racist, and what they called ‘unsophisticated’ Americans.”

But this story has not slowed rapid change.

“Marigny is very gentrified now,” says Iversen. “It’s much more difficult for black people to get home loans to buy properties.”

most recent report of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) found that New Orleans is “gentrifying at an unusually rapid rate” compared to other cities in its 2020 Gentrification and Disinvestment report.

“We looked at 392 census tracts or neighborhoods in New Orleans for the study,” says Jason Richardson, senior director of research at NCRC. “Sixty-four percent of them were considered eligible for gentrification according to our methods. The 13 that gentrified based on our criteria make up about 20%, which propelled New Orleans to fifth place for gentrification.

With that in mind, gentrification trends sparked early speculation about who would buy the historic corner property where Baldwin & Co. and Johnson’s other business, the New Orleans Art Bar, sit at Elysian Fields and St. Claude Avenue. The property officially housed the black-owned Gene’s Po-Boy sandwich shop, founded by Eugene “Gene” Raymond Theriot in 1968. The restaurant closed in 2019 and the property has been listed for nearly $5 million.

There was chatter within the community that the new owner would turn the property into condominiums. But Johnson cared less about refuting the claims by speaking out after the property was purchased. He refuted them by opening Baldwin & Co.

“People were like, ‘Listen, you gotta get out from behind the shadow. People need to know it’s a black man doing this,” he recalled. “I never wanted the focus to be on me, just on the mission.”

Johnson says he understands how good his story — a young child from a single parent, growing up in poverty, leaving New Orleans, then coming back to buy an entire corner — is. But as he says, he doesn’t want Baldwin & Co. talking about him. Instead, he wants the focus to be on the work he and his staff do in the community, including book festivals and free giveaways set up to ensure black children have access to books.

“Being an avid reader saved my life and gave me the opportunity to buy these properties,” Johnson says. “I’m not naturally a smart person, but I’m obsessed with learning…an obsession that comes from reading. Reading is the gateway to success. It’s something about writing that tattoos information in our brains. It’s invaluable because it’s that information that comes out and transforms the world. If we want to see a better world, we must all become readers.

TOPICS: New Orleans black-owned businesses